Friends getting engaged is nothing new to me. People marry early in the American Southeast, as if they’re told to do so by some gene. For example: A year out of high school, five girls I knew from my graduating class were pregnant, six were engaged, and three were in marriage factories. (Marriage factories are institutions of higher learning backed by religious organizations where, generally speaking, a Bachelor’s degree isn’t the goal. The goal is marriage, and the people who go to these schools acknowledge and embrace it. The side effect of these institutions is a the culling of humanism or liberalism.)
Usually, when I found out that another friend of mine was getting married, I’d sigh, shake my head, and think about the strangeness of the South. Dixie’s engagement, though, was the third time I was legitimately happy for the couple—the first time being for two friends of mine who had been together for so long that they had actually melded together into one person: an entity known as Stephrew. Anyway, I found out that Dixie was getting engaged and decided that, damn it, this was a celebration! So, I went out to the supermarket with the intention of buying some champagne.
When I showed up in champagne section, I realized that I knew nothing about champagne. (I knew nothing about wine in general, except that I liked kosher wine because it tasted like candy.) But I had an ace up my sleeve: I used to watch an inordinate amount of James Bond movies, and I knew that Bollinger was good. I didn’t know why, because I’d had good champagne before, and it still made me want to spit it out right off the bat. I looked at the price tag, had a minor heart attack and decided that, fuck it, I could eat pasta for a while.
The engagement party was at seven o’clock, starting at the Westgate Wetherspoon’s, moving to an Italian place, and then off to the movie theater to see Back To The Future II. Now, I have a bit of a problem, bordering on compulsion. I will—nine times out of ten—show up half an hour early. Even if something’s being held just down the road, or at a place next door, I will somehow manage to be the first one there. Sometimes I beat the host, and that’s just all sorts of awkward. It happened at the engagement party, but, thank God, it was at a pub.
So I walked through the darkness of an English fall night, down the footpath from campus to town wearing the dress uniform of my family—a black shirt, dark jeans, dress shoes, and a black blazer, because we all want to be like Johnny Cash—weaved through some residential areas, and walked into the Wetherspoon’s at 6:30 on the dot. Sometimes, I impressed myself.
I drank fast that night. Don’t know why, honestly. It’s not like I had anything to do. After the second pint and a single Jack, it was 6:45. I did the only thing I could think of to slow myself down: I pulled out my cell, called the Drunkard, and spat, “Yo!” into the phone when he answered.
“...Hey,” he said. “What’s up?”
A pause. In the background, I could hear two people shouting at each other in French. “Okay.”
“Yep.” I was standing outside in the smoking area—a little patio, about six yards wide by twelve yards long with walls separating it from the back of the kebab shop next door. I paced.
“Aren’t you supposed to be at an engagement party?” asked The Drunkard.
“Yep. Got here early.”
I heard one of the French speakers in the background shout, “Drunkard. Ici. Maintenant!”
The Drunkard shouted back, and I caught none of what he said, but there was some laughter from the French. “Look,” he said to me. “Why’d you call?”
“Oh,” I said. “No reason. Just to chat.”
The line went dead on his end.
I grunted, checked my watch. 6:50. I looked back inside, and saw that, thank God, Dixie and a few other people I vaguely remembered from seeing in the showcase from the American Society were at the bar. Dixie was with a girl a few inches taller than him (both he and I shared the misfortune of being Hobbit-like in stature), and I reckoned that was Becky, his fiancée. I swung the door open, swooped in like a madman, grinning and clutching the bottle of Bollinger, walked up behind him and shouted, “Mazel tov, you son of a bitch!”
Generally speaking, calling someone a son of a bitch in glee isn’t protocol for the English—at least as far as I could tell—so I got a few odd looks right there, but, in my semi-alcohol-affected state, I didn’t really notice. He took a look at the bottle, said, “Holy shit, are you joking?”
“Nope. It’s a time for celebration, isn’t it?”
Dixie, enthusiastic as always, gave me a man-hug (the one arm thing with three claps on the back standing for “we’re not gay”), and introduced me to the people I didn’t already know. Turns out the director of Fiddler was there, along with one of the other girls from the society. And, naturally, I decided that, fuck it, I’d treat this entire damn night like it was an audition because—and this is tantamount to understanding the way my mind works—I am an asshole.
Luckily, there was another guy from the showcase who I briefly met named James. James was a Greek-American and one of the people around whom the cartoon in me comes out. (Let me explain. My Dad is great with kids. He is, in fact, a five-year-old trapped in a middle-aged businessman’s body. For fun, the two of us would sometimes go to an art museum and scream at paintings in Cockney accents that make Dick Van Dyke’s in Mary Poppins look accurate. An example: “Dear God, them mutants is attackin that lady, they is! Why did someone make babies that have wings? Why?” You have to be there. Anyway, I picked up this character trait from him, and, while it’s made me a decent impressionist and may be the reason I can come up with stories on the fly, it’s made it very hard to take me seriously.)
Anyway, we sat at a table in the back, and James and I immediately created two characters: Cletus and Floyd. They are hillbillies who really, really like classical music and despise people who order red wine with their pasta. This continued as we moved to the Italian restaurant on the High Street, ordered our food, and—I’d imagine—scared the shit out of our poor waitress, who really shouldn’t have had to put up with two idiots screaming about Jesus, lasagne, and Tchaikovsky.
(Explanation time, yet again. A while ago, I wrote a very short story—by my standards—called “The Crescendo.” It involved an African-American professor from UT driving through the rural highways around Knoxville. A beat-up pickup started following him, tailing him, flashing his lights, that sort of thing. So our man pulls over, the two guys in the pickup step out dressed for all the world like they’re straight out of Deliverance and start telling the man that he’s not welcome round those parts, “cause this here’s Beethoven country” and the man was blaring Tchaikovsky from his stereo. I showed this story to The Writer once, interested in seeing what he thought, and he reacted by vomiting into a storm drain. Some people just don’t understand my sense of humor, I guess.)
From time to time, I’d look down the table to my right, see the director and her friend staring at the two of us with that grin that I know so well—that grin that says, “This man is completely insane. Do not look upset; look happy. Otherwise, he will go berserk.” Normally, I see that grin, shut up, and go into my little shell for the rest of the night, but I’d been drinking, so I instead started—basically—haranging another person at the table—another Jewish guy named Alex, who happened to have pull around the student radio organization on campus—about giving Cletus and Floyd a show. It could be called “The Cletus and Floyd Classical Radio Hour” and start off with a segment updating the listeners about the latest NASCAR and Atlanta Braves scores. As you could imagine, it didn’t happen.
At any rate, the dinner went well up until the end. I’m not sure what it is about this country, but you never, ever get separate checks by default. Even in our case, where there must have been fifteen people seated at this long string of tables, where everyone was divided up into cliques by virtue of proximity and there was quite obviously no cohesion, we got one honking big bill at the end of the meal. Twenty minutes later, with all of the discussion you’d expect from peace talks at the United Nations, the bill was settled and we left to go see the movie.
The director, her friend, and a few others left. By this time, I was too drunk (after a couple glasses of red wine at dinner, I was perilously close to shouting “Wild Rover” in the streets) to analyze if my self-declared audition was a success. Instead, I started gushing about how these movies were the best in all the world, and fuck you if you didn’t think so. We made it to the theater, the movie hadn’t changed since the last time I saw it, and our group cheered whenever the word “future” was said.
I stumbled up to campus after that and passed out soon after I walked in my door.